Part 2 of Will Barrett’s series on the intra-evangelical culture war. Part 1 is here.
To have a decent argument that ends with a bow and a handshake, or maybe even a beer after the crowds have cleared, the parties involved must assume that both sides have come to the debate earnestly and with the best of intentions, even if they haven’t. In other words, both sides need to refrain from blaming the others’ motives for having the discussion in order to focus on the terms of the discussion itself. This limitation is even more important when one or both sides has reason to suspect that the other’s motives are rascally or base. To keep the conversation from devolving into tiresome defenses of honor, the arguers must agree to bracket out questions of motives.
New Atheist debaters like Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris regularly betray either their blissful ignorance of this guideline, or else an amusingly wilful disregard for it, when they regularly open debates over cosmology and first causes with charges that their theistic interlocutors just want to convert the audience to their chosen religion instead of helping them think for themselves. They probably do, but that is beside the point.
In the intra-evangelical culture wars, the liberal camp has lately displayed a wanton disregard for this first principle of debate whenever sex is the topic of discussion. Liberals blame the conservative side for cultivating an unhealthy and obsessive interest in sexual matters. “Why”—regularly moan Salon, The Huffington Post, and Slate between sips of their lunchtime kale smoothies—”must these reactionaries make such a big deal out of sex when the whole subject comes so casually for us?” Setting aside the fact that this is simply partisan whining, not a salient objection, and tabling the obvious riposte that the casualness of sex is most frequently what the argument is about in the first place, we may come to see clearly the offensive value effect of this curiously potent sentiment.
Charging conservatives with an obsession about sex has Freudian overtones and calls to mind archetypes both literary and real: the repressed, possibly homosexual minister in denial of his own nature; the celibate priest whose unsatiated libido will soon turn predacious; the henpecked hillbilly whose veneration of the Bible’s sexual codes is a convenient way to dominate his wife. These are the sorts of fellows who obsess over sex, so anyone who brings the subject up must be one of them. If conservatives are so agitated as to produce spirited arguments against the liberalization of sexual behavior, it must be a result of their screwed-up insides. Never mind whether or not they are right, they are simply not healthy.
It is tempting for the liberal, under the false pretense of maintaining dignity, to refuse to even enter the discussion after this objection has been raised. After all, who would blame anyone for refusing to spar with Ernest T. Bass? Evangelical liberals are often content, rather than answering the argument, to watch and wait for an event that will discredit the arguer. Perhaps the sexual tension that must be roiling beneath the prudish Victorian surface will rear its head and devour the conservative’s reputation in scandal. Perhaps some existential epiphany will enlighten the conservative and cause him to abandon his beliefs, like Casey in The Grapes of Wrath. Liberals often prefer to make their arguments with references to stories about the latest pastor to fall prey to prostitution or the latest Christian Contemporary Music artist to endorse liberal sentiments on gay marriage, as if these episodes are in themselves indictments of Evangelical sexual teaching. Even if these useful episodes fail to materialize, it serves just as well to first invent and then balk at some fantastically disordered conservative obsession with sex and end the discussion with a scoffing snort and a roll of the eyes.
Any rational person should see clearly that this appeal to base motives does nothing to settle the issue. Any charitable person will think the accusation more than a little unfair. And any person who has a grasp of history will recognize that the accusation is simply wrong. The idea that conservative Christians are the ones who have brought the subject of sexual morality to such a boil as we are all cooking in today is pure fantasy. To hold solely to tradition in sexual morality, as in any other matter, suggests absolutely nothing as to the truth of your convictions, but it does guarantee one thing: that you didn’t start the argument. This is not to say anything about whether or not the argument should have been started in the first place. Many good arguments needed starting by someone. Activists for gay rights and abortion pride themselves on having started a good and necessary argument with oppressive tradition. (For an enchanting paean to this heroic narrative, read Robert O. Self’s All in the Family.)
Whether by burning bras or ordaining gay priests, liberal activists bravely challenged the ancient colonnade of power, patriarchy, and heteronormativity (so runs the narrative). To claim as much is good and proper for committed progressives, and we need not take that trophy away from them. But any liberal who accepts this as his patrimony ought at least to acknowledge that he has started a fight, be a good sportsman, and not be offended to meet with some resistance from the opponent. If the argument is an honorable debate, a representative of orthodoxy should be permitted to make his case. If the challenger then asserts that his opponent must be grossly preoccupied with the subject to have responded at all, he both dishonors his opponent and degrades the quality of the debate. There really ought to be no question as to which side started the argument and which side formed to meet the challenge, though it should not so much matter who started it when both sides are committed to approaching their interlocutors charitably.
To be sure, some liberal commentators are referring to the shrillness of conservative rhetoric when they charge conservatives with obsessing about sexuality., The breakdown of reasonable discourse is always lamentable, but it should be noted that the tone of both sides of the debate has escalated in parallel, making it sometimes difficult to judge who is being more vicious, let alone more obsessive. But even raising the issue of which side is wasting more hot air on matters of sexual morality evades the real conversation—and soldierly bloggers on both sides engage in this fruitless line of invective lamentably often.
It should be clear that American social mores are in a state of unprecedented upheaval. No one, not even traditionalists, can claim to represent the “default” position anymore on any social question, sex least of all. Everything must be contended for, nothing may be assumed. But for all that it seems to me that the liberal side more often assumes a repugnantly patrician position of “master of the discourse of polite society.” The hallmark of this strategy is to take hold of the reins of the discussion by sighing with frustration about how often the discussion has to be had. Liberals like to think that they are the ones in a position to put the brakes on controversy, but they are not. They are rather like an invading army casually crossing a long-held border and then throwing up their hands in exasperated wonder at what’s got the governor of the place so agitated at them. The bright-eyed liberal might hold forth about what useless abstractions borders are and how it makes no difference whether one plants one’s flag on this or that side of an arbitrarily drawn line, but as long as one accuses one’s enemies as being reactionaries, one may as well expect them to—well, react.
Prodded by increasingly radical revisions to sexual mores and traditional views of gender, conservative churches have responded both by arguing publicly and by restating, explaining, and, yes, teaching (that perennial preoccupation of the church) their position to their own members. That this has happened with increased frequency and passion in these last few years is unsurprising given the radical convulsions of our young century surrounding issues of sex and gender. An impartial observer would say that sex is rather on everyone’s minds lately. The sexual revolution is only barely in the rear-view mirror of history, the gay rights movement is still on the march today, and radical feminists regularly lunge at anything that might possibly cage a woman’s right to enjoy frequent, subsidized, and consequence-free sex. Add in how alarmingly ubiquitous sexual imagery is in media and advertising, or the instantaneous and free availability of internet pornography, and one might even say that being involved in discussions about sex is an unavoidable consequence of living in twenty-first century America. Whether or not this is a happy situation is not at issue. The point is that it does no good to indignantly point out that the other side is drenched when you’re both in the lake.
Mr. Barrett’s series will continue next Wednesday, examining the common grouse that “the church ought to be doing X instead of obsessing over sex.”